The ubiquitous internet meme comes in many forms — from iterations on top of iterations of a viral video to a random picture of a cute animals with an ironic white Impact caption. They also seem to proliferate like one of those animals with an ironic white Impact caption, if you know what I mean.
The internet meme often gets a bad rap. It gets called a waste of time, a waste of energy, and a waste of brain bandwidth.. really just more noise in an already cacophonous environment. But is this really true? Is meme only a waste of time or is there significantly more to the humble internet meme?
A case for meme
“Culture” is defined as “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties, especially by education.” Culture varies significantly across the world, just as significantly as the moral and intellectual faculties between people vary, and grows strong in places that foster education between people of like-mind and similar values.
By this definition, the internet is becoming its own global culture. There are (of course) differences, but in essence, the internet is allowing people to come together and develop their intellectual (consider communities like Quora, topic-based communities, etc) and moral (consider the group Anonymous or the internationally-adopted web blackout in protest of the US SOPA bill) faculties. It is difficult to associate any major internet movement with a particular people or existing unique culture. The internet and the spread of cultural artifacts through its many channels are as diverse as all the people in the world — and through this diversity there is unity forming around similar values (freedom, democracy and expression).
Meme, by definition, is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Meme is not necessarily specific to the internet — it simply became a household name through the Cheezburger Network. We could define many important cultural evolutions as “meme,” such as 3D imaging in modern film or technology in the classroom. These — now commonplace — ideas have spread from person to person inside of a unique culture.
I propose that internet meme is the currency of a blooming global culture. Internet meme can, and does, educate morality (consider the macings at UC Davis and the massive adoption that meme saw) as well as intellectual pursuits (consider the Advice Mallard), and while there is a ton of crap in the world of internet meme, the same can be said for most more traditionally accepted cultural mediums (has anyone seen this Nic Cage film?!).
The internet is irrevocably changing the way we interact with traditional media that define what “culture” is for us. What is art in this new environment? Do you have to be a classically-trained musician to create culturally-significant music? How is cinema, food, and literature changing due to advances in internet technology? What ultimately count as legitimate “cultural” artifacts and what doesn’t?
While the internet is creating its own culture in cyber space, there is invariably spill over to the real world. People reference internet memes in casual conversation around dinner, share meme experiences with friends and loved ones, and use meme as illustrations of concepts among their peers. They use meme to make points in arguments, to create conversations, to shame, to uplift, and to showcase triumphs and defeats. This, to me, bears greater cultural significance than simple entertainment on the interwebs™. Internet meme is most assuredly spreading ideas, behaviors, and styles between people — locally and virtually.
What do you think? Does meme count as culture in the greater global evolution of human culture? Let’s hear some opinions!